|What does it mean to be born again? John 3:1-10
Sarah M Foulger, 8-4-13 Congregational Church, Boothbay Harbor
The story is told of a precocious three-year-old girl.1
She was the firstborn and only child in her family, but now her mother was pregnant again, and the little girl was very excited about having a new brother or sister. Within a few hours of her parents coming home from the hospital with her tiny baby brother, the girl made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room - with the door shut. Her insistence about being alone with the baby with the door shut made her parents a bit uneasy, but they had a baby intercom system so they let their daughter do this as they listened in from the speaker in another room. There they heard their three-year-old daughter pleading with her three-day-old brother: “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”
Somehow, the little girl got this idea in her head that when we are born we are very near God and as we grow older, our distance from God increases and our knowledge of God, our remembrance of the Creator decreases.
We are born little bundles of faith, vulnerable in every way, completely honest, utterly trusting, and totally accepting. We cry when we need something, we sleep when we are tired, and, whether or not our parents are worthy of our trust, when we are born we trust them absolutely. We are born authentic, defenseless, and trusting. And then, slowly, steadily, we build up layers of defenses. We construct walls out of our successes or failures. We camouflage ourselves with education or ignorance or social standing. We hide behind ideas or opinions or airs of superiority or complexes of inferiority. We develop layer upon layer of callouses and create masks and learn how to pretend.
Some of the saddest souls I’ve known have worn the broadest smiles.
Some of the loneliest individuals have surrounded themselves with the most people. Some of the most frightened people are those throwing the hardest punches. Some of the most insecure people are bossing others around. Some of the brightest women pretend they are stupid. Some of the dumbest men pretend they are smart.
Part of the ongoing resonance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” has to do with the truth of all the pretending we do. We human beings can become so good at falsifying ourselves, we don’t even know how to be honest with ourselves. We don’t know what it real anymore. Integrity gets thrown out in favor of appearances. Defense mechanisms become such a way of life we do not even recognize them. So it is that we grow farther and farther from God, from the divine source of our being.
The Gospel of John tells the remarkable story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of his people. Nicodemus has an image to maintain, ideals to uphold, a social position to preserve. But his curiosity about Jesus and his spiritual longing begin to outweigh his need to conform to his Pharisee persona. And so he decides to meet Jesus in secret -in the dead of night - for he certainly could not afford to be seen with Jesus. What would the other Pharisees say? Nicodemus feels he has to sneak out to learn more about Jesus. But he does it - he steals away under cover of darkness, sits down with Jesus and says, “Rabbi, you must have been sent by God for how else could you do what you do?”
Jesus, as if he hasn’t even heard the question, tells Nicodemus that if he wants to see the divine realm, if he wants to be near God, he must be born all over again. Nicodemus doesn’t get it. Taking Jesus’ words literally, he immediately imagines having to be physically reborn and how could that ever happen?
Like Nicodemus, most of us are at least a little confused about what it means to be born again. We may even be turned off by the thought because the term “born again” has been nearly exhausted by those who have turned it into a kind of password to get into some sort of exclusive Jesus club. But what Jesus is offering Nicodemus through this magnificent metaphor of rebirth is nothing short of a return to God. Jesus offers Nicodemus holy transformation, a stripping off of defenses, a return to the authenticity and trust and openness he was born with, a sacred process that will bring him nearer to God again.
For most of us, being born again does not happen in a single moment. There may be clear, identifiable, and deeply spiritual turning points, but as Marcus Borg puts it, “For the majority of us, being born again is not a single intense experience, but a gradual and incremental process. Dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and living into a new way of being is a process that continues through a lifetime.”2
For most of us, being born again is a daily struggle to be true to ourselves, true to others, true to God. To be born anew is to become like newborn infants who are naturally honest & defenseless. To be born again, to be born anew, is to strip off every pretense and be the people God created us to be: honest, loving, accepting, trusting. So may it be.
Holy Spirit, who, like a midwife, who offers rebirth, forgive the ways in which we pretend; forgive the ways in which we build up walls around ourselves; forgive the ways in which we are not honest. And help us to be nearer to you, in spirit and in truth. Amen.